I expect him to flash that smile at me and be cocky.
But his expression is flat. Inscrutable. “You managed to get a date with Connor and invite me to a party and get a yes. Kudos. You’ve got some mojo. Everyone will be impressed.”
I frown, searching his face. “Are you mad?”
He shakes his head and focuses on the board, where the professor is writing notes.
I replay the conversation, my conscience tugging at me. I can’t come up with a viable reason for his surliness. Unless…
“Did you think I was asking you out?” I whisper.
Tension crackles in the air, and he inhales a deep breath then stares at me hard before looking back at the board.
A muscle pops in his jaw, but he doesn’t respond for at least twenty seconds, his eyes holding mine, the color deep and mesmerizing, an iridescent sea-green color.
He opens his mouth to say something but then closes it.
His gaze searches my face, as if looking for something, and I draw up, my body leaning toward his. God, how does he manage to create this tension inside me with just one look?
He exhales and breaks our stare. “Of course not.”
He scribbles on his paper next to his laptop.
“There’s something you’re not saying,” I murmur.
“I don’t like being used to make your party cool.” His voice is low. “I thought you were above all the labels at Waylon.”
Labels? He’s at the top of the food chain here. “Easy to say when you’re the one looking down on everyone else.”
“You don’t know me. You don’t know the pressure I feel to be the best.”
“You’re kidding, right? You have this entire school eating out of the palm of your hand. Everyone loves you.”
“You’re wrong.” He shrugs, broad shoulders shifting. The movement causes his arm to touch mine, and I get sparks all over my body.
He gives me more room until we aren’t touching.
“There’s a shit ton of pressure on me,” he continues. “My team wants me to bring them together. Coach wants a championship. NFL scouts are constantly watching and critiquing me. And, if I get hurt this year, everything’s over. All that hard work…down the drain.” He rakes a hand through his hair. “When it comes down to it, I’m just a twenty-one-year-old kid who’s making some pretty big decisions.”
I study his face, taking in the hard jut of his jaw and the shadows I think I see in his eyes. I’ve been imagining him as a carefree asshole, putting labels on him in my own way. Sure, he’s not the golden boy I once thought he was, but black sheep looks good on him, too. Maybe I did get way too wrapped up in beating Margo at her own game. Sometimes we think everything is about us, but it isn’t. And sometimes, we do and say not so great things to get the thing we really want, even at the expense of others. I think back to seeing Margo standing next to him in the hall and how angry it made me. Part of it was because I’m starting to think of Ryker as my friend, but I also didn’t want her to get the upper hand. “You’re right. I manipulated you.” I look down at my hands. “I’m sorry.”
A few ticks of silence go by as he taps his pen on the desk. My chest feels tight as I bring my gaze back up to study him. His stony expression softens. “Ah, Red. I’m not angry with you. It’s just everything else really.” He sighs. “I know you’re not like other people. You don’t even care who I am; in fact, I should still be begging for your forgiveness for that bet.”
I shake my head. “No, we’re past that. I meant what I said.” I pause. “I don’t hold grudges, Ryker. Starting right now, you and I have a clean slate. Friends.”
I smirk. “It’s better than enemies.”
“You do have my workbook.” He eyes the item in question as it sits on my desk.
“And thank you again. I owe you.” I smile, and his dimple flashes at me. I get a high, like a rush of coke, straight to my head—not that I’ve ever done drugs, mind you, it’s just…he brings out uncharted emotions in me, little by little.
He nods his head toward Connor, who’s glancing over his shoulder at us. “He’s looking lonely over there, and maybe a little jealous that we’re talking. You best remedy that after class.”
I nod, and we turn back to Professor White.
Later, when class is dismissed, Connor walks over and offers to escort me to my creative writing class. I falter, part of me having hoped Ryker and I could talk more, but he doesn’t wait around for me to decide; instead he runs his gaze between Connor and me, gives me a short nod and heads out the door.
Charisma and I sit inside a booth at Sugar’s. It’s my dinner break, and she popped in to keep me company. We eat burgers and fries as we strategize on how I’m going to figure out how to play pool.
I take a long drag from my soda and rub my forehead. “Why did I lie to him?”
She shrugs. “I assume because you like him and wanted to impress him?”
I nod, but there’s a niggling in my head, a small voice that’s beginning to grow stronger. Is Connor what I want? I’m not an advocate of lying, ever, and yet I started us off that way. It doesn’t feel right.
She narrows her eyes at me as she stuffs a fry in her mouth. “What about Ryker? He’s hot.”
“There is no me and Ryker.”
She looks at me.
“What?” I say. “I don’t do football players.”
She thinks on this, her finger tapping her chin. “What I find interesting is that Ryker chose to kiss you to make Connor jealous. There are a dozen other things he could have done, like told Connor how nice and sweet you are.”
I shrug. “He had a gut feeling and just went with it, I guess.”
She dabs at her mouth with a napkin. “Listen, I have gut feelings too, and mine is telling me Ryker has his eye on you. He watches you.” Her gaze darts over to the football table in the back. “In fact, don’t turn your head, but he’s looking right now. And his face is so dang serious.”
I stiffen, and it’s everything I can do to not turn my head. It’s been a couple of days since we had our talk in calculus, and it feels as if he’s giving me space.
I lean in over the table. “What’s he doing?”
Charisma’s gaze brushes across the restaurant, lingers in their direction, and then comes back to me.
“Well?” I ask
She shrugs. “Looking hot and cocky as usual. Definitely a PILF.” Player I’d Like to Fuck. “Not me,” she adds, “but you know…the rest of the world.”
“Who’s next to him? Jersey chaser?”
She grimaces. “There is a jersey chaser there, but he’s not into her. I’ve been scoping him out periodically and he’s barely looked at her. Blaze is on the other side talking his ear off.”
“He didn’t ask for me to be his waitress tonight,” I say, almost to myself.
“Interesting. No more garçon?”
I shrug. Honestly, I was a little disappointed.
She looks at me. “By the way, remember the guy I hooked up with at the toga party last year?”
“Pretty sure it was Blaze.”
I snort and nearly choke on a fry. After taking a long drink from my soda, I say, “How do you know?”